Fremont Peak P1K CC
Mt. Harlan P750 CC

Thu, May 20, 2010
Fremont Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile

I was supposed to go snowshoeing in Tahoe, or at least that was the plan I had formulated the day before, but a combination of factors made me bail at the last minute. It was so last minute that I never told my family of the change and when my wife woke at 6a and found me still in bed with her, she exclaimed, "What are you doing here?!" Not the sort of comment a married man expects to wake up to. I ate breakfast with the family and sent them off to school while I contemplated an easier option. I looked at the dubious CC list and found a couple of possible candidates down south in San Benito County. Fremont Peak is part of a State Park with a paved road for all except the last mile, so that would be a piece of cake. To the south of this lay Mt. Harlan, on private property and therefore a bigger challenge.

As expected, Fremont Peak was an easy effort. It took almost exactly one hour from San Jose to the TH, no traffic. From San Juan Bautista there is a windy 11 mile-long road to the top. The State Park is relatively small, encompassing the summit and portions of the mountain to the north. There are antennae installations near the top, though thankfully not at the highpoint which has been preserved for the various monuments to John C. Fremont. It seems this location is of historical significance as the first time the US flag was raised upon California soil in 1846. Never mind that we weren't at war with Mexico just yet and Fremont was getting ahead of things. He appears to be an impetuous man who was highly regarded in his day as a great explorer, adventurer and statesman. In reading the etymology on Fremont, one finds that the flag wasn't raised on this summit at all, nor within the State Park, despite several markers within the park testifying otherwise.

I found only one other visitor in the area, just outside the park entrance. There is an observatory nearby that had some vehicles and possibly residents, but I saw no activity in that direction. Due to budget problems, the park is closed Mon-Wed, fortunately not a problem today. A $5 fee is charged for day visits. I drove to the upper parking lot where the last stretch of road is closed by a gate. The Fremont Peak Trail starts here and winds its way around the north and west sides of the peak before reaching the summit from the south, less than a mile total. The hillsides were remarkably green for mid-May and many wildflowers were in bloom. The views are fine the entire hike. The weather was fine, some coastal haze, perfectly cool temperatures. There is a plaque and flagpole to be found among the summit rocks along with a battered benchmark. The antennae all lie to the south of the summit on lower sections below the top. One has a fine view of the Gabilan Range looking south (Fremont is the northernmost peak in this range), The Salinas Valley, the Santa Lucia Range and the pacific coast to the west, the Santa Cruz Mountains to the northwest, Hollister and the Diablo Range to the north and east. I had just finished taking the last picture from the summit when the battery in my camera gave out - too bad, because the hike to Mt. Harlan would go unphotographed.

After spending perhaps an hour in the park, I drove back down to SR156, headed east towards Hollister, then southwest and south on Cienega Road that winds its way along the San Andreas Rift Zone just east of the Gabilan Range. It goes by the Hollister SVA area, quiet on a Thursday morning, but a very pretty looking area dedicated to off-highway vehicle use. Cienega is also part of San Benito's "Wine Trail" as there are a number of wineries active in this area, offering tasting and sales in addition to the active cultivation going on. I turned right on Limekiln Road, then right again on Mt. Harlan Road a mile further. The topo map says this well-graded dirt road is private, but I found no signs indicating this for the two miles I drove up this rather steep road.

After two miles, where the road temporarily tops out, I abruptly came to a stop where a locked gate closed the road. At this point I was less than three miles by air from the summit and it seemed an easy matter to walk there in an hour or so. As I stopped to examine the gate an older gentleman came walking down from above on the other side of the gate, asking if he could help me. He had a medium-sized dog with him that was as friendly as he was, not even a bark as he came to check me out. We had a very pleasant talk as I explained my purpose. Harlan Winkle explained that he was the owner of the first mile of road and the surrounding 800 acres, his family having homesteaded the area for generations. His first name came from his grandmother's maiden name, the old family from which the mountain derived its name. He was very happy to let me hike, or even drive through his property, but explained that the remaining portion of land was owned by Josh Jensen, the owner of the Cabela Winery back on Cienega Road. After further discussion, not the least of all was why someone would even care to climb the unimpressive Mt. Harlan, we agreed that I would drive back down to the winery to see if I could get permission before coming back.

Back down the road and then north along Cienega Rd I went, making a few miscues before finding the winery about half a mile north of the small school. It was just past 11a when wine-tasting begins, and as I walked into the large building with a typical tasting setup, I found myself the only one there. A young woman came out a few minutes later, to whom I explained my purpose. She didn't think it would be any problem, but took me upstairs to talk with the manager in the offices, one Judy Vargas. She was quite friendly as well, especially after finding I wasn't from the government, explaining that Mr. Jensen was out of the state at the moment, but was happy to give me permission to visit the summit. Of course she was similarly intrigued why I even cared to do so, and we had a pleasant talk about that as well. Before I left, Judy said she'd call the property manager on the site to let him know to expect me, "so he won't shoot you," in her words, with a smile. I drove back up Mt. Harlan Road after leaving the winery, Mr. Winkle nowhere to be found. I parked the car off to the side outside the gate, grabbed my day pack and squeezed through the fence.

The first half of the hike was quite delightful, with easy, rolling terrain, green meadows and forests of oak and pine. Flowers were in abundance. Halfway across Mr. Winkle's property, he came lumbering by in his large white pickup. We talked again briefly as he explained he was off to look for a couple of his cattle that he had misplaced. He was grazing a small herd of cattle on his land as his retirement job, not a bad second career I had to admit. Off he went. I reached the property boundary just before Harlan Creek. There was a fenceline between the adjacent properties but the gate across the road looked to be permanently left open. Signs indicated No Trespassing - Owner Josh Jensen, so I was at least headed the right way. The road passes by a number of hillsides planted with vines, a variety of old equipment and other junk littering the roadside in the fashion of typical farming businesses. I had learned that the winery had been started in 1974, but the vines I was viewing were much newer, perhaps 10-15yrs old. Though I heard noises and saw other vehicles, I saw no other persons for the time I was on the property.

The road passes by a dilapidated green homestead and a water tank before ending deep in the woods at a red cabin with an old firebird parked out front, hood ajar and obviously abandoned. Beyond this the road becomes undriveable and a few junk trucks and a bulldozer can be seen up the hill a short distance. I crossed the creek before reaching the trucks and found a faint road heading steeply up the right bank of the stream. Most of the gain for the hike started here, a good workout with tall grass, a few downed trees to negotiate, and uneven footing. Eventually the old road tops out on the ridgeline northwest of Mt. Harlan, where the GPS showed I was still a third of a mile away. I followed the ridgeline road in an arc to approach the summit from the west. The forest canopy hung over the road, now reduced to a clearing through the trees unused by vehicles. The GPS proved indispensible in finding the summit as the terrain to the west seems equally high and with the trees it was impossible to discern with any accuracy. The summit was a disappointment in terms of views, though it was possible to obtain one to the east or south by moving through the trees in that direction. The good news was that the road was continuous from the bottom and did not end as depicted on the topo, very good in fact because the whole area is rife with poison oak and it would have been impossible to go cross-country without covering myself in the stuff. It took about an hour and a quarter to reach the summit from the start. I could see no other options for making a loop of the hike, so I returned the same way.

On the way down I stopped at the red cabin to check it out. Though the building, perhaps 50-60yrs old, was in a slow state of decay, it was filled with various pieces of well-worn furniture, and the cupboards were stocked with a smattering of things like old peanut butter and instant oatmeal. It looked like this may have been more of a summer residence, or a retreat to the shade of the forest-covered stream canyon to escape the summer heat lower down. It did not look to have been used in some years. Again I saw no one on the way down, and by 2p I was back to my car. Though the summit had nothing to offer, I very much enjoyed the spring hiking in the area with all the flowers and so much greenery. I think this may have been my first hike on private property where I actually got permission to hike - a radical idea, indeed.

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